Her start was very different from what she had imagined for herself. She ended up in fourth place! This was in 2013 when Tushna Patel made her rally racing debut, becoming the first woman in Pakistan to take up the sport which till then was restricted to only male drivers here.
Driving her Vigo 3,000cc in the Jhal Magsi Desert Challenge, and racing against male competitors, she ended up fourth in Category B. But Tushna’s achievement heralded a change.
Soon after, a local motor sports club introduced the women’s category in rally racing for the first time.
“When I participated in the race for the first time I fought well, but obviously the men were more experienced than me,” says Tushna.
Tushna’s debut was the coming to fruition of years of hard work and passion. Being the wife of prominent rally driver Ronnie Patel helped, too, but her stereotype-smashing appearance on the sand dunes of Balochistan three years ago came after being involved in the sport for 11 years.
Her presence in the pit stops only fuelled her desire to be in the driving seat.
Unlike Formula One or MotoGP where teams have their own pit stops with their own mechanics and engineers working on the specifics, rallying sees cars end up in one single pit stop during stage breaks.
“I used to go to the mid break, which is 100-200km inside the desert. I would setup everything for the stage break where drivers used to come and take rest on race day. I was the only female in my team, we used to go one night before the race for setting stage break and I used to drive my car because I never trusted anyone,” she adds.
Apart from rally racing Tushna is a responsible mother of two children Meherwan and Dina Patel. She is also running three branches of the Wendy School system.
So what is better? Rally racing or principal?
“The principal’s role is my profession and rally racing is my passion.”
Before getting married Tushna and Ronnie were also good friends. “My husband plays a very major part in supporting me and he was the one who motivated me to take part in racing,” Tushna says.
Similarly she always supports her husband in good and bad times. “Win or lose, I am always on Ronnie’s side and I will support him in future also,” she says.
Sharing a memorable incident, Tushna narrates: “In 2006, I witnessed my husband’s car overturned.”
After the accident Ronnie was demotivated, she says. “It was very difficult for Ronnie to bounce back after that incident. I was with him all along to help him through it.”
Tushna and Ronnie’s 14-year-old son Meherwan is also interested in rally racing. He also participated in a Hub race.
“He beat me in the second round of the race by 13 seconds. That was his moment, getting ahead of his mother,”
Tushna beams. Meherwan is also a two-time Sindh Open Swimming champion and a national gold medalist in swimming.
Tushna is concerned about women’s participation in this male-dominated sport. She wants women to step out of the house.
“The first time I participated in a rally race, it was not to win but to show that women, too, can do it. I wanted to encourage other women,” she says.
“My victory is that women are coming out of the house to participate in the race and that their families are supporting them,” she adds.
There have been other women participating in the Hub Rally and Cholistan Rally in the past two years.
This year in Cholistan Rally, Tushna lost to her opponent Jamila Asif.
Still she is happy because every time she is competing with a new female opponent it means that she is achieving her goals and more women are coming forward and participating in rally racing.
“I may have lost to Jamila but for me it is still a win-win situation. Every time a woman participates in a race it means that people’s mindsets are changing,” she said.
Tushna says that she is always available for advice or any other help for women thinking of joining the sport but may be hesitating due to any reason.
She says: “If a girl is talented, she has potential and is daring, her family should encourage her. If anyone has financial issues I will do whatever is in my power to help,” she adds.
Every time a woman participates in a race it means that people’s mindsets are changing … Tushna says that she is always available for advice or any other help for women thinking of joining the sport but may be hesitating due to any reason.
When asked if women are safe drivers, Tushna chuckles, “No, all women are not safe drivers. They don’t even park very well and can’t reverse very well either.” But she feels that “women are great at multi-tasking.”
Pakistan has one of the best terrains for off-road racing, which changes after every 15 to 20km. The sudden change in the track is the real test of human and machine.
Many times during these races, people experience car breakdowns.
“People in our circle have talent but hardly any financial backing so they resort to jugaar. They are successful most of the time but it is risky to drive on these unforeseen terrains with shoddy mechanics,” she says.
And the winner is …
Motor sport is the most neglected sport in Pakistan thanks to the government’s not giving it much importance.
Tushna wants a motor sports federation, which can look after their issues, and who can also be responsible for organising the events. Such a federation can also invite international racers over to participate in the races here.
“There should be a motor sports federation like other sports bodies here. It can sponsor our local racers to participate in international desert racing events,” she says.
She also points out that there are sponsors out there who are willing to sponsor events but no one is sponsoring individual drivers, she says.
While elaborating on the sponsorship issue, Tushna further adds, “Any oil company or tyre company will sponsor a fashion show but will not sponsor rally racers. These battery companies, tyre companies and companies relevant to motorcars should also sponsor the top individual racers,” she says.
That said she gets to the hurdles faced by international drivers, who are willing to participate in rally racing here but can’t because of several problems from our government.
In spite of this there are some passionate international drivers who do come here to participate in our rallies, like this year, when a racer from Kenya participated in our race,” she says.
“International drivers are willing to participate but cannot do that as often as they would like to because of the hurdles placed in their way by our government.”
All these racers are good friends who enjoy each other’s company.
They go for dinners together, for long drives, shopping, etc., every weekend.
“We are like oxygen for each other. We are one big family, who take care of each other,” she says.
Finally, Tushna has a message for street racers who take part in unofficial races. She urges them to not endanger their and others’ lives by taking part in street races.
“I want that young crowd who take part in street races to participate in rally racing instead. It is far safer and more organised.”
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 24th, 2016